Op-Ed

J. Steven Gardner: 'War on coal' real, inflicting serious pain

J. Steven Gardner of Lexington is president/CEO of ECSI, a science and engineering consulting firm.
J. Steven Gardner of Lexington is president/CEO of ECSI, a science and engineering consulting firm.

Tom Eblen's column characterized the "war on coal" as "phony."

I have to respectfully disagree, as do a majority of people in Appalachia and the country who have been directly impacted. Having been in the trenches of the "war on coal" I have observed many fronts.

I do agree with Eblen that some coal jobs have disappeared due to mechanization and market forces. Mechanization is a natural evolution of technology; however there are other things that have happened on the regulatory and societal fronts that just did not need to occur.

My firm has had to lay off many people as a direct result of the "war on coal," while business expenses like health care have skyrocketed.

Mining does have its share of problems and bad actors, however the Nov. 30 editorial essentially denigrates everyone associated with coal and stereotypes them as scofflaws.

There is a perception that mining destroys land forever and always creates environmental degradation. I have been involved in the industry for almost 40 years working on better methods to mine natural resources in the safest, least impactful way possible.

Great strides have been made learning from past mistakes. Growing up on an Appalachian tobacco farm and then living in the coalfields, I found one common thread to workers who toil in the Earth: They are fiercely proud of what they do.

Dismissing the "war on coal" disrespects the tens of thousands who literally lost their jobs overnight. While changes were inevitable, it did not have to happen that way.

The Sierra Club and activist groups used fear and exaggeration that many accepted as fact. The image of mining routinely portrayed is very misleading. Abundant supplies of natural gas have changed the country's energy mix. That does not change the fact that coal is still an important part of our energy portfolio.

Kentucky has a large manufacturing sector and is soon to be the second-leading auto manufacturing state thanks primarily to historic low electric rates from coal.

Alternatives have a place, but only where they make economic sense and there is base load back-up. Activists have a Catch-22 in just how much mining is necessary to provide materials for wind or solar energy.

Many in Environmental Protection Agency have shown a disingenuous attitude and demonstrated hidden agendas, many times cooperating with environmental activists, showing clear conflicts of interest while reinterpreting longstanding regulatory policy and retroactively changing rules.

In my career, I had the opportunity to work on high-profile projects, such as the Environmental Impact Statement for the Office of Surface Mining's proposed Stream Protection Rule. When the group of five consulting firms — including over 100 scientists, engineers and respected university professors — found the proposed rule would lead to thousands of job losses, Department of Interior officials asked the consultants to change the results.

When the team stated they would not lie for the agency the contract was terminated. See the DOI Inspector General's report at: http://www.doi.gov/oig/reports/upload/OSMEnvironmentalReview_Public.pdf.

So, there is a real "war on coal" waged by activist groups, agencies and many in the press. I have seen the combatants and the casualties.

We need to take a moment and reflect on the benefits of mining to society. As the 2015 president of the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration (www.smenet.org), I plan to encourage our 15,000-plus members, engineers, scientists and professionals from all sectors of society to engage in public discussion to dispel myths about mining.

Just like food, most people today do not realize where their stuff comes from.

At SME we like to say, "If it can't be grown, it has to be mined."

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